Chameleon

By Beth Bernobich

Part 1 of 2

I am Chameleon.

The morning sun shines through me. I have no flesh to stop the light; no skin to catch its glory, reflect a color, or cast a shadow. I am far more than ghost; and yet, without substance, I am too much like one.

So I take up characters as I would a deck of cards. I shuffle and cut them, letting the cards flicker past; then I close my eyes and choose one.

At first glance, the card looks plain, but when you study the inkwork, you see its complex design. Look at the face -- no glitter here, no cheap seduction. Its very subtlety provokes me.

My name is Sarah.

With broad strokes I sketch an outline. I make Sarah lank and tall; I dress her neatly and without distinction -- white blouse, dark knitted skirt, shoes dulled and scuffed at their toes. She looks ordinary -- deliberately so. But with her eyes, I can gaze upon my audience; through her mouth I will speak.

I'm twenty-four. I'm not pretty, but as my mother said, I'll do.

More details now. I mix reserve with unexpected warmth. I choose a hundred flaws, and balance them with grace. Each trait, each quirk and gesture yet unmade, I sketch from the vision within. At last she stands before me.

One word, and she breathes. One touch, and we merge together. Soul within soul, we leave the void of creation.


The air around us thickened as we entered downtown New Haven. Sarah and I were walking along an uneven sidewalk. It was twilight; the streets were veiled with mist, the air scented with asphalt and the faint aroma of curry. A chain link fence bordered our path; on it hung a battered sign reading "Yale University Housing/No Trespassing." Streetlights punctuated the haze at irregular intervals.

Rounding a corner, we passed two young men and a woman, who chattered about lectures and books and where to find the cheapest falafel. Moments later, a group of teenagers passed in the opposite direction, their conversation lilting from English into Spanish and back. Emotions flickered across my palate, the raw and pungent mélange of youthful desires. I absorbed knowledge about the city from every passerby, but no one stared -- I was just another pedestrian in this neighborhood, where university and town intersected.

We passed into better-lit streets, to a neighborhood of chic stores and glass-fronted bistros, where couples strolled along brick sidewalks. Jewelry, collectibles, gourmet coffees. . . I read the shop signboards as we walked. Then, wedged between an African art gallery and a laundromat, an older tavern caught my notice. Its heavy wooden doors stood half-open, and from within came the roar of conversation mixed with laughter and music. Here, I decided.

Sarah obeyed, entering the tavern. Men and women thronged the bar. We pressed through the crowd; from all sides I tasted a rich medley of passions, but I did not pause. I would not feed on scraps and leavings. No, tonight I wished to dine exquisitely.

A nearby laugh punctured the din. Glancing toward it, I caught sight of a woman murmuring to her companion. I noted her plum-soft lips, her perfume like spice, her amber skin and crimson fingernails. She looked directly at me, and I stopped.

The boundary between me and the exterior world thinned. Sarah receded, and I sampled the woman's emotions, expecting opulence. But no. Beneath her polished exterior, I found only a meager passion, dulled by repetition. I turned away.

Under my direction, Sarah found a table near the back and gave her order to the waitress. While we waited for our drink, Sarah traced the rings on the table's scarred surface. The tavern looked far from fashionable; pale stucco covered the walls. Hidden spotlights illuminated replicas of Degas's ballerinas, Van Gogh's sunflowers, and the muted blue figures of Picasso's early period. Chandeliers, hung from wooden beams, gilded the drifting wreaths of cigarette smoke. A faint memory -- of other taverns, in other lands -- floated through her thoughts, only to vanish when the waitress appeared with Sarah's drink.

Sarah swirled the wine in her glass, watching the bubbles spin and break apart. She sighed, as though tired, and took a sip. While I kept her busy, I sketched memories of a family: a mother, a younger sister, a father who died five years ago. With quick strokes, I added enough texture for the usual questions which strangers exchange. One stranger, I thought, for I now wanted a companion.

I plucked from nothing the memory of a cloudy gray kitten, with spindly legs and a crooked tail. Tomorrow we would find such a kitten, and Hanni would be her name. Sarah's thoughts turned toward Hanni. We smiled . . .

. . . and Sarah bloomed.

I'd drawn her plainly, with a raw-boned face and thin straight lips. The smile softened her expression, and in the chandelier's light, her straw-colored hair turned to incandescent gold. Sarah pushed her drink to one side and rested her cheek against her hand, still smiling.

Not long after, the waitress placed a second drink in front of Sarah. "From the gentleman over there," she said, pointing across the room.

Following her gesture, we picked out the man, who sat with a larger crowd embrangled in a vigorous discussion. In the hazy light, we could just make out his features -- the dark hair, the restless hands, a broad ordinary face. Only his crisply white shirt stood out, the sleeves neatly rolled up and his collar unbuttoned.

Pick up the drink, I told Sarah.

She raised her glass to acknowledge the gift. A heartbeat later, the man stood and walked toward us, stopping a yard from our table. "Hi. My name's Joe." His voice carried a faint rasp from New York City, softened by years and distance.

"Hello." We kept our voice pleasant, but not eager.

"I hope you don't mind." He gestured at her drink with one nervous hand; the other gripped his half-filled glass.

"That's all right. And by the way, my name is Sarah." We pointed to the empty chair. "Would you like to sit down?"

"Thanks." With a last glance at his friends, Joe sat. He took a quick swallow of his drink, put it down, and leaned back. "Are you new in town?"

We smiled. "Fairly new."

"How do you like it so far? No, forget that question." He glanced away, smiling, but there was no humor in that wry expression. "It's too much like a game," he said. "Questions and answers, but never really talking. You know the list -- what's your name, what kind of work are you in--" He stopped again and, with a conscious effort, tempered his voice. "I'm sorry. I babble when I get nervous."

This moment is the most difficult for chameleons. Humans sense our differences, even if they cannot tell what bothers them. To soothe away Joe's nerves, I smiled and leaned forward to show I was listening. By listening, I accepted him. The first step.

Joe took a deep breath. "It's just I was listening to everyone argue about city politics. Same argument last week, same this one. Then I saw you." He rotated his glass slowly, nearly spilling his drink. "You have a pretty smile."

He dared to look up. Our gazes met, briefly. Sarah shook her head, and Joe gave a sharp laugh. "Now you think I'm a real idiot. What makes me different? I buy you a drink. I give you some line--"

We took Joe's glass and set it beyond his reach. "I smiled because I was thinking about my kitten," we said. "And I don't think you're an idiot. Though I wonder why you came here tonight. You don't look comfortable."

We smiled to soften the blunt comment. Joe returned the smile and visibly relaxed. "That's one of the illegal subjects, you know. It says so in the rule book -- never ask why."

"Why not?"

"Because you might get a real answer. Spoils the fairy tale."

"Ah, but I like those illegal questions."

His smile warmed. "I could tell, just by looking at you."

We shrugged. "You still haven't told me why you came here."

Abruptly, he looked away, uncomfortable again. "I don't know. Maybe I am just like all the others. With jokes instead of lists."

"No, you aren't." Before he could speak, I added, "Shall I tell you why I came here?"

A heartbeat of silence. "If you want."

"Because I'm lonely."

"Illegal topic number two," he said softly.

A human aware, I thought, with rising excitement. A rarity. Difficult, but oh, so delectable.

For a moment, we let the conversation dangle. I could read questions in Joe's face, and I sensed within him a reservoir of extraordinary passion, untouched and vigorous. From this one human, I could draw decades of sustenance, but first I had to draw him closer.

"We just broke all the rules," we said.

"Worse than that," said Joe. "We mentioned the rule book."

"Will they find out?"

"They always find out. The only question is how to punish us."

"No, the punishment's always the same." We rummaged through Sarah's purse and took out a five-dollar bill. "For my drink," we said, laying it on the table. "Would you make sure the waitress gets that? Oh, and do you have a pen?"

He looked startled but handed us a pen from his pocket. "What's the punishment?" he asked.

We scribbled three lines on the napkin and handed it to Joe. "Falling in love," we said.

More quickly than he could react, we stood and slipped easily through the crowds and toward the tavern door. There, a mass of humans encircled me. I ignored the crush of their emotions. Invisible, I paused and looked back.

Joe had picked up Sarah's money and was signaling to the waitress. His expression was bland, his manner unreadable. From all the signs, I thought I'd lost my gamble. Still, I waited, breathless.

A long moment passed, the longest ever, but at last he did unfold the napkin to read our message: "A challenge. My name is Sarah Evans. Call me after Wednesday."


If I had guessed correctly, Joe would easily find Sarah's telephone number. Before Wednesday, however, I needed to construct my external framework -- apartment, job, all the physical details corresponding to the memories.

The first night, I placed Sarah in a hotel. The next, I explored the city for a more permanent home. I didn't need to search long -- a tattered handbill led me to a small apartment building, in a neighborhood caught between decay and resurrection. The landlord counted my money twice, but he didn't question my documents.

Finding employment took longer. Newspapers and billboards advertised dozens of trivial jobs, but I wanted one that reflected Sarah's chosen character. At last, Sarah found an advertisement for a salesclerk job at a small bookstore near the university.

The manager liked the answers I gave to her rapid-fire questions. She hired me, and within a day, I had absorbed the trade from her. Yet I was careful not to attract attention. I sold each customer an armful of books; I took their money and gave them change. In five minutes, they would forget me. I was safe.

As a final detail, I located the nearest animal shelter. We selected a cloudy gray kitten, brought it home, and named it Hanni. With the context of Sarah's life complete, I ran my finger along the edges of memory to blur the lines. Sarah would only remember what had occurred, not when.

My plans were complete by Wednesday. On Thursday, Joe called.

"Hi, Sarah. This is Joe," said a quick voice. "From last Friday. Remember?" Over the telephone, he sounded more abrupt.

"Of course I remember you."

"Oh. Well . . . Listen, I tried finding your number yesterday. Did you know the operator had three listings for Sarah Evans?"

We laughed softly. "I told you it was a challenge."

Joe laughed as well, but nervously. "So you did. Anyway, I called because . . . Are you free Saturday night? I know a great restaurant." He paused, then continued in a milder tone. "I thought we could have dinner together."

I let him wait a heartbeat, no longer. "I'd like that," I said, and in his breathless reply, I sensed his delight. A morsel of the coming feast.

Two short days. I knew this human would not yield to anything but a flawless illusion, and so I worked on Sarah's character as never before. I gave her a birthplace, a first boyfriend, the college she'd attended but couldn't afford to finish. I drew a few memories of her childhood -- isolated days she remembered clearly -- then blended together a hazy recollection of her family and school. But the wealth of my hours I spent writing the script Sarah would follow with Joe. Under my direction, she smiled, thinking how nervous he'd been when he called, and she worried they wouldn't have anything to say. I made her wishes indistinct, like a human's.

Saturday evening, I made the final preparations. I dressed Sarah in a dark green dress, draped and tucked into a suggestion of curves. I added the ebony necklace her father had given her the Christmas before he died. With a brush to her whispery hair and a quick smudge of lipstick, Joe might find her pretty. Almost.

A sharp buzz interrupted our thoughts. Joe. Sarah glanced one last time at her dusty reflection before running to answer the door.

They drove to a small Italian restaurant on the east side of town. "I come here once a month," Joe told her. "It has the best food in town, in my opinion."

He gave Sarah advice on the dishes and chatted with the waiter in snatches of Italian, laughing at his own frequent mistakes. In the sunlit dining room, his face looked older than we'd first imagined. Gray flecked his dark hair, and the flesh along his jaw had begun to slacken. He'd dressed carefully, as though to camouflage these flaws.

Throughout the dinner, we both confined our conversation to the menu and the sundry, safe topics used by strangers: the weather, a recital of the day's events, a tentative exploration of likes and dislikes, though nothing definite. Once I let our hand brush his -- a careless affectionate gesture that brought a fleeting blush to his cheeks. But he recovered his composure, and looked at me with a bright and questioning gaze, as if to gauge my intent.

After the waiter cleared away their plates, Joe ordered coffee for Sarah, espresso for himself. Then he said, "Tell me about yourself."

"Not much to tell." Sarah looked through the milky windowpanes to the crowded walkway below. "I'm twenty-four, I studied English in college but I didn't finish my degree, and I work in a bookstore."

"Not a very detailed resume."

Sarah reached and touched his hand. "Listen, I don't like lists of questions either. Let's take this slowly. When the time comes, I'll tell you more." With a smile, she withdrew her hand.

He sighed. "You're right. I sound like I'm interviewing you."

He reached for his coffee, but then instead picked up his empty wineglass. He slowly rotated the glass, the sunlight glinting off its rim.

"I guess I should explain," he said quietly. "I'm not much used to dating." He drew a deep breath. "I was married for such a long time. And then I--"

"You don't have to tell me." We laid our hand gently over his. This time we did not draw away.

Joe glanced up. "But I do. You see, my wife decided she could do better. She left -- unexpectedly. The next day I heard from the lawyer."

We pressed our fingers lightly against his.

Joe smiled. "I'm sorry. I'm nervous again. But I thought you should know. My friends keep dragging me to bars and parties. I kept telling them they were picking the wrong places. But I guess they were right." He laughed softly.

"I hope so," we murmured, half to ourselves.

We drank our coffee silently. Joe's glances, less guarded now, revealed anticipation, but I wanted more than a single feeding. Carefully, I scripted Sarah's performance to the finest detail.

After their coffee, when Joe suggested a walk, Sarah agreed. Leaving the restaurant, they wandered along summer-baked avenues to a nearby city park. Cascades of lilacs scented the air, and in the growing twilight, the evening sun lit the grass with an emerald brilliance.

"Sarah . . ."

Sarah heard the question in Joe's voice and looked up. He kissed her lightly. She flushed and took a step backward.

Joe paused, uncertain. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd mind."

"No, no. I don't mind. I wanted you to kiss me." Sarah laughed. "I don't always get what I want."

Confident now, he put his arm around her. "That can't be your first kiss."

I selected a memory and drew the face of Sarah's first lover. "It's been a long time," she said.

He smiled, delighted that she'd almost forgotten. "It can't be that long ago -- you aren't that old."

Sarah touched her cheek, as if checking for signs of age.


After that first date, I spent days adding layers of detail to my character. I gave Sarah complete memories of her childhood and teenage years. To make the counterfeit flawless, I diminished one recollection, then blurred another. With every stroke of detail, the translucent skin of Sarah's infant self thickened around me. I worked cautiously, searching for that precise balance between the authentic human and a character I could control. I wanted more than a replica -- I wanted to re-create all of life's vibrant colors. Only in this way could I lead Joe from attraction to love.

We met Joe two more times, once at a different restaurant, once for a concert. His manner both times was reserved, and when I studied his face in the concert hall, I detected a tension beneath his apparent absorption in the music.

Then, not long after the concert, he invited Sarah to dinner at his apartment, where he had prepared a banquet of curried vegetables, freshly baked breads, chicken marinated in spices, and heaps of aromatic rice, dotted with cardamom seeds.

"An indoor picnic," he said, pouring wine into a pair of crystal goblets. When I took the glass from his hands, I felt a wash of emotion. Despite innumerable outward signs of age, he looked younger tonight, less guarded than before.

For hours, Joe and Sarah nibbled at the various dishes, while Joe told childhood stories, each more humorous than the last. Sarah responded with a wealth of tales I supplied. We laughed, all three, until the laughter faded into a contented silence.

Sarah touched Joe's cheek with a light hesitant touch. He tilted his head, his mouth quirked into a wry smile. All the unasked questions were gone from his expression -- all except one. In a wordless answer, Sarah kissed him.

And I, I dined.


The next afternoon, Joe called Sarah at the bookstore.

"I can't talk," Sarah said. "My shift isn't over yet."

"I thought the store closed early on Mondays."

It did, but I wanted to keep Joe uncertain about Sarah, to keep his passions strong.

"Never mind," we said. "Why did you call?"

"Just to say that I'm working at home this afternoon."

"Are you saying you'd like a visitor later?"

We made our tone light and playful, but Joe paused. "No games," he said evenly. "Not between us."

A miscalculation. I was considering how to recover, when an unaccustomed tremor ran through my character. Curious, I released a fraction of my control.

Another moment of heavy silence, then Sarah spoke.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I was afraid. After last night--" She laughed softly. "I felt so . . . intimidated."

I was fascinated. Though I guided her, the words, the warmth, all came from Sarah. She will be my finest work, I thought.

"It's okay," Joe said. "We're both nervous. Listen, call me when you get home. We can get together later, if you like."

Even through this mask of flesh, I felt his gladness, like the heady bouquet of exquisite wine. The moment was here, I thought. Last night was but the promise. Soon he will yield the full treasure of his emotions. My character had learned how to lure him, even better than I could.

Wednesday, I whispered to Sarah. Let him wait a few days. The feast will prove richer.

Carefully, I withdrew control and waited, poised in case Sarah faltered.

She answered without hesitation. "I'd like that very much. I'll come by after work."

No. I touched her thoughts, ordering her to retract the promise, but my fingers slid along a glass barrier. Underneath the hum of her thoughts, I detected Sarah's unwillingness to deny Joe's happiness, even for a short while.

They said goodbye. Sarah hung up the phone and walked toward the front of the bookstore. At the next aisle, I touched her thoughts, directing her back to the phone. It wasn't too late; she could call Joe, make her excuses, and delay the moment.

But Sarah turned in the opposite direction, walking slowly along the aisle, lost in thought. Her own thoughts, not mine. Again, I tried to command her, but my fingers scrabbled against an impenetrable surface and finally slipped away.


Read part 2 here.

 

Copyright © 2001 Beth Bernobich

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Beth Bernobich's short stories have appeared in Clean Sheets, Electric Wine, and the Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, as well as in Strange Horizons -- visit our Archive for her previous publications in our pages. Her obsessions include coffee, curry, and writing about men (and women) without shirts. For more about her, see her Web site.